Any reader who thinks the passage of time has ended efforts to solve the dark mysteries of the Kennedy murders is mistaken. Maybe most people who still think about that awful time have formed conclusions they are comfortable with about whether each murder was committed by a single deranged assassin or whether there was a conspiracy. But the flaws in the lone-gunman theory and other aspects of the conventional wisdom ensure that assassination researchers will continue to unearth new details and formulate more nuanced explanations.
The latest serious contribution to this eternal issue comes from David Talbot, whose Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years offers a coherent thesis, a review of existing evidence, and many new and fascinating details, mostly gleaned by Talbot from interviews with principals still alive. The result is a compelling exposition of why and how JFK and RFK were killed and by whom.
Talbot, the founder of Salon.com, asserts that JFK had determined to break with the "Cold War lobby" of CIA and military hardliners, Mafia dons, and right-wing ideologues, viewed not as a taut organization but as a loose and disparate group of powerful people whose interests sometimes coincided in common cause. A perennial cause was the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and Cuba.
Talbot argues that the CIA knew its plan to overthrow Castro with the Bay of Pigs invasion could not succeed, but gambled that JFK would have no choice but to back it up with decisive American military power to avoid leaving the Cubans stranded on the beach. When JFK rejected air cover and other reinforcements that the planners unrealistically believed would have insured victory, the invaders were rounded up and humiliated. The CIA, Miami Cubans, and others never forgave him.
It's impossible to read Talbot's review of the Bay of Pigs fiasco without drawing searing parallels to Iraq, and Talbot does so without belaboring the issue. Both were based on false assumptions by some of the planners that the operation would be easy, with invaders greeted as liberators, and plans for follow-up were woefully inadequate. Talbot notes that a common factor in preventing a better understanding of American tragedies such as the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and now Iraq—as well as the Kennedy assassinations—has been the performance of the media. Talbot comments, "the American media's coverage of the Kennedy assassination will certainly go down in history as one of its most shameful performances, along with its tragically supine acceptance of the government's fraudulent case for the wars in Vietnam and Iraq."
Talbot reports that JFK planned to tell his audience at the Dallas Trade Mart on November 22, 1963, that "Americans must stop listening to the voices of 'nonsense' that blared 'peace is a sign of weakness.' The most effective way to demonstrate America's strength was not to brandish our awesome weapons and threaten our enemies . . . but to pursue peace instead of 'aggressive ambitions.' "
Using an impressive array of relevant details, Talbot alleges that Mafia big shots, CIA operatives working in Miami, and Cold War hardliners concluded that JFK's peace ideas were a threat to the national security apparatus—and that these disparate groups could have colluded in the assassination. Talbot introduces fresh material to buttress his case and add weight to old theories. For example, Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, said in an interview, "If (JFK) had lived, the world would have been different. . . . Whether we would have had détente sooner, I'm not sure. But it would have been a less dangerous world."
Talbot maintains that RFK always had doubts about the lone-gunman explanation. In fact, after JFK's death, Bobby "immediately suspected the CIA and its henchmen in the Mafia and Cuban exile world." He was obsessed with finding out who killed his brother and why but concluded he would never be able to pursue a full inquiry unless he had the presidential power to break through the curtain of secrecy at the CIA and elsewhere. And he became deeply disenchanted with the seemingly open-ended war in Vietnam and mounting casualty tolls, to no apparent benefit to the security interests of the United States.
When he entered the race against LBJ, those who felt threatened by a probable reopening of the JFK assassination investigation and those implacably opposed to détente may have again coalesced and decided that Bobby posed an unacceptable threat to their interests.
This skeletal outline does not do justice to Talbot's detailed and plausible narrative. Among other things, he shines a light on David Morales, a CIA field operative who was deeply involved with the Miami Cubans and who was on site at both the Dallas assassination and the murder of RFK at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Talbot describes Morales as a "CIA assassin" and states that shortly before his death by heart attack in 1978 he revealed to his lawyer that he was involved in both Kennedy assassinations. Wayne Smith, a "25-year veteran of the foreign service who worked with Morales at the U.S. Embassy in Havana," told Talbot, "Dave Morales did dirty work for the agency. If he were in the mob, he'd be called a hit man."
Talbot describes a BBC television program, Newsnight, that aired in November 2006 with footage showing three alleged CIA operatives, "veterans of the CIA's Miami-based anti-Castro operation," at the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the assassination. Morales was one of them, although Talbot is uncertain it was actually Morales. This reviewer checked with Mr. Smith, who has seen the footage. He confirmed it was indeed Morales. (Full disclosure: Mr. Smith and I were foreign service colleagues in the Havana Embassy in 1959–60, and I knew Dave Morales briefly. In 1961, he bet me $10 that "we'll have Castro out of here within a year. It'll be just like Guatemala," in which he had been a participant. Morales never paid the bet.)
Both Smith and Talbot point out that the bullet that killed RFK was fired from directly behind his head from a distance of three inches or less. But Sirhan Sirhan attacked Kennedy from the front, making it a certainty there was a second gunman.
These and hundreds of other details, including a mysterious meeting between RFK and arch-foe Jimmy Hoffa on the tarmac at Dulles Airport, and the revelations of a dying E. Howard Hunt, make fascinating reading. Talbot insists there is significant, accessible information still locked up that would shed further light on the enduring mysteries, including CIA and Department of Justice files, Cuban and Mexican government information on such operatives as Morales, further forensic investigation, and more contributions from principals still living.
Talbot makes a strong case for reopening the investigation, and in so doing has produced a page-turning read. But, of course, key questions remain. One could also wish for more amplification on some of the assertions and numerous footnotes. And if a conspiracy this huge, necessarily involving hundreds of people, was in fact perpetrated, why has the cover-up been so effective all these years? Still, the problem of governmental entities abusing their power is still with us, so it's reasonable to look for answers when important new information and insights surface—whether or not we find a definitive smoking gun.
Bill Lenderking is a retired foreign service officer and freelance journalist. Read his review of The Great Risk Shift.